The real estate agent and I stroll down a pretty tree-lined street, past mid-20th century homes and well-kept front yards.
From here we’re a 20-minute walk from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where construction crews are busy hammering on buildings that will soon be high-end condos and apartments, restaurants and coffee shops.
From here, we’re a 6-minute drive from downtown Omaha.
I peer down the pretty tree-lined street and ask real estate agent Sara Porter the question you ask a real estate agent when you’re intrigued.
These houses go for between $110,000 and $160,000, Sara tells me.
“Wow!” I say. “Why doesn’t everyone live here?”
“That’s a great question.”
The reason everyone doesn’t live here is that we are standing near 26th Street and Avenue D in Council Bluffs. Everyone doesn’t live here because Council Bluffs is the part of the metro area that Omahans most love to loathe.
We call it Counciltucky. We often stereotype it as dumpy and dangerous. And many of us view the state line as some kind of invisible barrier — real estate agents say that few longtime Omahans move across the river.
That “we” includes me. I have lived in Omaha for 12 years, most of it right next door in downtown. And yet, I rarely travel to Council Bluffs. I have never for one second considered moving there.
I have uttered the phrase “Counciltucky” more times than I care to admit.
“The stigma!” Sara Porter yelps, then sighs when I tell her this. She grew up in Council Bluffs. She’s a lifelong resident and the general manager of Heartland Properties, which sells homes on both sides of the river. “When I was growing up, people would literally joke, ‘You have all your teeth?’ ” Sara says.
“ ‘Yup,’ I would say. ‘All of em.’ ”
She has agreed to give me a tour, the tour she gives Omaha house hunters willing to give Council Bluffs a chance.
We tour the Little Hollywood neighborhood on Council Bluffs’ west end. I didn’t know Council Bluffs had a quaint neighborhood called Little Hollywood.
We tour the historic Lincoln/Fairview neighborhood, where grand houses built in the 1880s still stand, and the Gibraltar neighborhood, which features more grand houses and fantastic brick streets. I had no idea these neighborhoods existed, either.
As we drive, we talk about the perception that Council Bluffs is dangerous. It simply isn’t true: The city of 63,000 people had exactly one murder last year, and its violent crime rate is way lower than Dubuque, Des Moines, most Iowa cities its size and, yes, Omaha. (Council Bluffs does have a higher-than-average property crime rate.)
Then we head out to the Council Bluffs outskirts, to a series of newer developments that could excite any suburbanite worth his weight in underground sprinkler systems: Bent Tree, which features giant lots right next to a nice public golf course; Whispering Oaks, a new development with forested areas and walking trails; Forest Glen, where many of the city’s power players live.
We look at parks. We look at Council Bluffs’ emerging riverfront — soon to be way ahead of where Omaha’s is. We look at nice new soccer fields and remodeled schools and new restaurants and scenic overlooks and more parks.
“This is not what the public expects in Council Bluffs,” Porter says as we drive through Forest Glen. I nod my head hard enough to strain my neck.
It is certainly not what the Omaha public expects of Council Bluffs — most Omahans who can afford to buy in Dundee or Elkhorn simply refuse to give the city a chance.
We refuse to do so despite this fact: The average price for a Council Bluffs home sold this year was a relatively affordable $156,054. If you bought an Omaha-area home this year, it cost you an average of $229,580, according to data compiled by Heartland Properties.
Omahans are attached to a Nebraska mailing address. We have often only seen Council Bluffs from its main Broadway thoroughfare — an admittedly regrettable stretch of road — and from the Interstate.
And Omahans, especially lifelong Omahans, have bought into all the things that Omahans say about Council Bluffs. It’s trashy. Subpar. Second rate.
“I always found that talk to be a little snobbish,” says Dean Kennedy.
Kennedy moved from Elkhorn to Council Bluffs’ west side in 2016, becoming one of the few metro area residents to make the west Omaha-to-western Iowa move.
He’s an Omaha area transplant, having lived here since 2001. And he’s a Navy veteran and current IT employee at Offutt Air Force base.
It is often newer residents and Offutt employees who relocate from Omaha to Council Bluffs, says Better Homes and Gardens real estate agent Tom Simmons. Veterans know that the State of Iowa doesn’t tax military pensions. Newer Omahans don’t have their anti-Bluffs bias yet set into stone.
And, for Kennedy, ignoring what his co-workers and neighbors said about Council Bluffs led to a move he is thrilled he made.
He says his new digs have a decidedly more neighborhood feel than his old home in Elkhorn. People regularly walk in the evenings, he says, and he himself often walks to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
Children play outside. He strikes up conversations with passers-by. A man recently saw Kennedy struggling to carry in a new TV and offered to help.
“In my old place, not once did I see someone out walking,” he says.
Kennedy reports that his property taxes have nose-dived, in large part because he downsized when he bought his Council Bluffs home. He also likes the fact that no one pays wheel tax — the $50-per-car annual fee paid by motorists who live inside the Omaha city limits.
Kennedy’s sales pitch is essentially what the real estate agents and a developer told me they hope to pitch to more Omahans in the future.
Hundreds of new apartments are going up, many on the riverfront, a short walk over the pedestrian bridge and into downtown. High-end riverfront condos, some priced at $1 million, are also being sold.
Row houses meant to attract downsizing retirees are up, with more planned, on the other side of town. And work to revitalize the area from downtown Council Bluffs to the riverfront is underway, even as the city’s new suburban developments continue to multiply.
The goal, over time, is to convince Omahans that living in Council Bluffs can be cheaper, easier and better than in Omaha.
The goal is to take that Counciltucky image and punt it all the way to Kentucky.
“It’s sleepy but changing,” says Julie Stavneak, owner of J. Development, which boasts 180 apartment units and 30,000 square feet of commercial space in Council Bluffs. “It’s self esteem, but I see that improving.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree. Can’t believe I think this now, but Council Bluffs might be on the move.